H.P. “Mike” Berkley, 65, is a solo practitioner outside Forestburg, a community near the Texas-Oklahoma border with a population of about 250. He went to Southern Methodist University School of Law and practiced in Dallas until moving to the country about 25 years ago. Berkley talks about marrying the town vet, being a content attorney in the middle of nowhere, and shooting turtles and tending cattle.
This is the first installment in a series of blogs on the lives and careers of small-town lawyers. For more, go to texasbar.com/smalltown.
I was born and raised as a Dallas kid. Probably when I was in my mid-30s, I got a wild hair and bought some land in the country—a couple hundred acres—and didn’t know what to do with it. Then I started realizing that there was legal work to do out here.
I had never been married and had no intentions of getting married. But I had a blind date when I was 40-something with the local vet. That was a phenomenal event. We got married, had two kids—Braden and Kaley, built a bigger house, and bought a lot more land. I became a rancher. I have an office in North Dallas and go there one or two days a week—I practice right here the rest of the time. For me, it’s a wonderful setup. The town has 200 people and I’m 10 miles away. I live on a 1,100-acre ranch, which is about two miles from one end to the other. We run 250 to 350 head of cattle, depending on the time of the year.
The law and lifestyle
What makes it neat is that there’s really two different types of practices of law: country law and city law. City law and the city judges really adhere to the state law, because they have to. It’s more cutthroat. You might never see that attorney again, so you don’t mind playing hardball.
In the country, it’s more low-key, less stressful. You have a problem, you call the other attorney and get it worked out because the next day he may have a problem with his case. The mindset is different.
In Dallas, I feel like I have to have a coat and tie on. Here, I’ll be out plowing, I’ll look up, and I’ll see somebody park out on the road, jump the fence, and walk out across the pasture—that’s where we conduct business.
I without a doubt prefer the country pace. Clients don’t expect the big dog and pony show. I have an office at the ranch, and they’re very happy to come here. I get cleaned up, but I wear blue jeans. You still try to render the best service you can for your client, but the formalities of the city just don’t exist here.
In Dallas, you can focus on one area of the law because there’s a whole lot of people with that problem. Out here, you have to be more of a general practitioner. You have to be aware of not only the particular problem but also how to fix other things in your clients’ lives.
A common issue is that of property lines. Somebody builds a fence because the creek’s there. Well, everybody agrees that the fence line ought to be there because they get tired of putting it in any time it rains and gets blown out. After 25 or 30 years, where is the line?
We’re in the Barnett Shale Play. I’m not an oil and gas attorney, but probably some of the most frequent problems that are presented to me are dealing with oil and gas companies and the headaches—damage to trees, damage to roads, pollution problems, ground water, drinking water, mineral rights. I will talk to them free of charge, give my initial reaction, and then refer them to appropriate attorneys, which, ironically, are usually in the bigger cities.
And then there are legal issues concerning pesticides and herbicides, cattle and livestock ownership. People still get divorced out here. They still run around. There are still family issues, probate issues, tax issues, car wrecks—that’s true with rural or urban.
I have had the same secretary for 32 years, Janis Watkins. She is retired but still works up to 35 to 40 hours per week and lives in Oklahoma now. With the Internet, we email constantly, and she draws up documents, scans and sends them, and talks with my clients. It works wonderfully. You don’t have to have an office anymore to practice law.
You do have to have a place to meet clients. I have a complete ranch office. I find that even some clients from Dallas just want to get out of the city and drive here. It’s a beautiful part of Texas.
I think a good attorney in a smaller town can do well. You don’t have to be a genius. You have to know the law and treat people like you want to be treated yourself. Every attorney needs to be a client, to have to hire an attorney for some type of legal problem. See how it is to not have your phone calls returned. See how it is to get a bill that says you owe x without an explanation, or not being able to find your attorney when you need to, or being treated rudely. And then you act as an attorney the way you want your attorney to act when you’re the client.
The nature of the country life is that you treat people nicer. Everybody knows who you are out here. In the city if you do something wrong, nobody knows about it. Out here, you do something wrong and everybody knows about it. They’ve got nothing else to talk about.
The nearest McDonald’s is 30 miles away. The nearest Wal-Mart is 30. There are only seven red lights in the whole county. We are remote. But you don’t lock your doors, you leave your keys in the car, you don’t close the shades on your window. You’re free to come and go. In the peace and the quiet, you learn to exist.
The biggest problem I think anybody would have practicing in the country is your spouse. It’s kind of understood that people from the city will come out here, and the question is, “How long will it be before they sell or the wife refuses to come again?” There’s bugs, there’s snakes, there’s no place to shop. And it can be difficult for spouses to find employment. Typically there are few good-paying jobs.
I think most younger attorneys head to the big cities. In the country, there’s not a lot of things to do—but isn’t that kind of neat? Does one mind not being able to get pizza delivered? You don’t get anything delivered. UPS throws the packages over the gate. I find them in the pasture frequently. If you want the nightlife, it doesn’t exist. It takes a different mindset.
Day to day, I drive a lot. I drive the kids one way 25 miles to school in Muenster, Texas, and I do this twice per day, at least, and for sporting events or practices, it’s more. Traditionally, in this part of Texas, the counties are square and they’re roughly 30 miles by 30 miles. So every courthouse is 30 miles from the next one. So your practice is scattered. If you’re in Dallas, most of your practice is in Dallas. But down here, it can be all over the place. And in Dallas, there are numerous district judges who can step in. But here the county has to hire somebody to come in or they can get a visiting judge. It’s more of a problem. We are a circuit of three counties, so our district judge sits in Montague, Clay, and Archer counties. We have a judge that is here only certain days of the month.
For me, the value is that I can get up in the morning and tend the cattle if I have to. This is a full working ranch; this is not a hobby. If someone comes in and says, “You have a cow out on the highway,” then I drop what I’m doing. But I also work full time in the practice of law.
I was an avid hunter until I married (Kathy, being a vet, does not like for me to shoot anything unless it needs being shot). But the ranch has over 45 tanks on it, so there are a lot of pond turtles who eat fish and the little ducklings and cottonmouth snakes to shoot. It’s a lot more fun out here. It really is. It’s less stress and probably less monetary compensation—but it’s worth it.